At Table -- A Homily for Maundy Thursday


1 Corinthians 11:23-27

In a moment we’ll gather at the Table of the Lord. We’ll break bread and share the cup together. We’ll do this as two congregations from two different denominations. There was a time when this kind of gathering would be impossible. You might gather to sing hymns or hear a preacher, but the Table was different. It was open only to the insiders. There are still traditions that “fence the Table,” but fortunately that is not true here. We can gather at the Table to remember the meal Jesus established to unite his people in love.  

This meal of remembrance is rooted in other biblical meals, including Passover and the “feeding of the 5000.” We might want to add other meals including the meal Abraham and Sarah shared with the three strangers at the Oaks of Mamre. These strangers were received with hospitality, and in return they delivered a promise that the covenant God wished to establish with Abraham would include Sarah, who was to bear a child through whom the nations would be blessed. 

As I have developed my own understanding of the Table, I, of course, turn to the accounts of the Last Supper. I have also found Jesus’ own practice of Table fellowship to be insightful to my vision of the Table. Jesus was rather indiscriminate in his table fellowship. He ate with the wealthy and the poor. He ate with sinners and tax collectors. What I find interesting is the criticism Jesus faced not only for his practice of sharing meals with the less respectable kinds of people, but spending time eating and drinking in general. Consider this comparison of Jesus with John the Baptist, both of whom were criticized for different reasons:

For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’;  the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ (Lk 7:33-34).

One is an ascetic and the other spends his time eating and drinking with the wrong kind of people. So, as followers of the One known for his practices of eating and drinking, we find the meaning of our faith revealed in a simple meal of bread and juice.   

The readings for tonight provide a context for our Table gathering. The first reading comes from Exodus 12. It describes the first Passover meal, which launched a movement toward freedom for the people of Israel. The word given to the people of Israel is that this Passover meal should be celebrated “as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations, you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance” ( Ex. 12:14). Jewish communities around the world will celebrate this meal tomorrow evening, in response to this commandment.  

The reading from the Gospel of John is set during a meal time, though the meal isn’t described. Instead, Jesus washes the feet of the disciples and then continues teaching them in preparation for his death that lies on the near horizon. Among these teachings is a new commandment that they should love one another, even as Jesus had loved them. This commandment is still in force!

Finally, we come to the reading from 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul tells the Corinthians that he has it on good authority, that on the fateful night prior to his execution, Jesus broke bread with the disciples and said to them:  “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me,” and  “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”  

Just as Passover is a meal of remembrance, so is this meal Jesus established. But, like Passover, it isn’t just a meal of remembrance. This is what Paul told the Corinthians: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). When we read this, we might not catch the urgency of Paul’s words. We’ve been sharing this meal for nearly 2000 years, and we probably expect that things won’t change anytime soon. Time will do that to you, but Paul didn’t anticipate the length of this interregnum. It seems clear from reading this letter that Paul assumed he would be around to see the day of the Lord coming in glory. In other words, he thought these things would occur before his own departure, and he was excited about this possibility. He was getting ready for it. In fact, he even recommended that it would be best, considering the situation, if people refrained from getting married and starting families. There wasn’t time for such things (1 Cor. 7). Since we’re still here two millennia later, it seems Paul was off on his calculations. Nevertheless, we continue gathering at the Table proclaiming the Lord’s death until he returns.  
What we have before us, therefore, is an eschatological meal. It is, of course, a meal of remembrance, but it is also future oriented. It  points us toward another meal, the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9).  We partake of this meal tonight in anticipation of that future meal when all the fences will come down and the whole family of God will sit for dinner! When that day comes everything that divides us from one another, everything that keeps from loving one another as Jesus loves us, will fade away as we share in the glory of God that heals all our divisions. But we don’t have to wait for that day to live into this vision. We can start now by sharing together this meal of unity and wholeness in anticipation of the full revealing of the realm of God. Yes, we must go through Golgotha, but it doesn’t have the final word. Golgotha will give way to the resurrection!  Let us, therefore, keep the feast!


Shared at joint Maundy Thursday Service at Northminster Presbyterian Church of Troy, MI (April 18, 2019)


Picture Attribution: JESUS MAFA. The Lord's Supper, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48272 [retrieved April 18, 2019]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr (contact page: https://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr/contact).

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